The Dark Horse

Movie review by
S. Jhoanna Robledo, Common Sense Media
The Dark Horse Movie Poster Image
Soulful story about chess, mental illness, and redemption.
  • R
  • 2016
  • 124 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

A person, no matter who they are or how troubled they might be, needs a purpose. Also, redemption comes in many forms. Empathy is a strong theme.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Genesis may struggle with mental illness, but he doesn't let it get in the way of his own search for meaning and a yearning to give to others. The kids in his chess club are also resilient, seeking a way out of a troubled life. 

Violence

A man is beaten with a pipe. Two men break into someone's home; the ringleader kicks the residents and scares a small child. A few scenes show a teenager with obvious bruises on his face, clearly post-beating. A man completely loses it in a van, destroying the windshield. Soon after, he storms into a party and nearly gets into a big fight with another guest. Other sequences have an overall menacing quality as Genesis battles both his inner demons and equally scary real-life ones who don't have his or his nephews' best interests at heart. 

Sex
Language

Both kids and adults alike use "f--k," as well as "s--t" and more.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Young boys drink beer and smoke weed. A teenager is seen grabbing beers for his father and his father's friends, who appear to spend much of their time getting high and drunk around him. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Dark Horse is based on a true story that's rich with empathy and heart, though balanced by a harsh reality. Expect intense scenes that show a man battling with mental illness, poverty, and personal demons (both internal and external). It also features scenes of kids drinking and using drugs (weed), as well as many menacing moments as a teen boy is slowly inducted into biker-gang life (there are beatings and more). Also some swearing, including "f--k" and "s--t."

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What's the story?

Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), a real-life Maori chess champion in New Zealand, is the subject of this compelling biopic. Focusing on the weeks and months after Genesis is discharged from a mental institution, THE DARK HORSE depicts both his struggle to find his bearings and his impact on an after-school chess club where he coaches underprivileged and troubled kids. All the while, he's managing a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and navigating a relationship between his beloved but sometimes violent brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapa), and his troubled-but-still-hopeful nephew, Mana (James Rolleston), who's poised to be introduced into his father's biker gang. 

Is it any good?

If you want to see a great actor fully inhabit his role, then watch Curtis in this deeply moving film: He's its heart. Though it follows a similar trajectory as other inspiring biopics, The Dark Horse surprises by taking detours -- into both Genesis' childhood and his increasingly fraught relationships with his brother and his nephew, as well as his mental illness -- that not only enhance the storyline but deepen it to a level that renders the whole thing both hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking. They're unexpected but yet feel universal and true.

The chess is interesting, too: This intricate game rises above the station of mere storytelling prop, acting instead as both symbol and savior -- not just for the kids, but for Genesis himself.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can tak about how The Dark Horse handles the subject of mental illness. Is it realistic? Authentic? Respectful? How does it compare to other movies that tackle the subject?

  • What role does empathy play in the story? Why is that an important character strength?

  • Does the movie glamorize drinking and/or drug use? Are there consequences? Why is that important?

  • How does the film address racism and classism in New Zealand? What role does chess play for the kids that Genesis coaches?

  • The movie is based on real events. How accurate do you think it is? Why might filmmakers decide to alter the facts of what happened? How could you find out more about the story behind the movie?

Movie details

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